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The pleasures of walking through central Johannesburg

Andrew Harding | 16:10 UK time, Monday, 27 September 2010

I like the Johannesburg city centre. There - I've said it.

I like the lazy pavements of Little India, the hustle and optimism around Braamfontein, the Ghanaian bars of Yeoville, the slick transformation of old buildings around Arts on Main, and the outdoor cafes sprouting around Newtown and the financial district.

Johannesburg city centre

South Africa's biggest city may well deserve its rough reputation. But it's changing, and trying to shake off some myths.

One of those myths is the belief that no-one walks in Johannesburg. It's true that crime - and the fear of crime - conspire with potholed pavements and poor public transport to nudge anyone who can afford a car to shuttle between gated compounds, offices and malls.

But the truth is that every day half the people leaving their in tiny apartments in central Johannesburg to commute to work make the entire journey, both ways, on foot - earnest crowds of young men half-jogging through the suburbs as they head towards business centres like Rosebank and Sandton. Half of the rest walk for at least some of their journey.

"We're a pedestrian city," Sharon Lewis, from the Johannesburg Development Agency, told me. The JDA is now working to rewire the city's outdated infrastructure in order to better serve all those pedestrians. They're putting in walking zones, widening pavements, building bridges, contemplating bolder steps like congestion charges and cycling lanes, and hoping their funding doesn't dry up.

Many of the walkers are new residents. The population is rising sharply. Back in the 1990s, the city centre was something of a ghost-town, as businesses fled the crime and escaped to the northern suburbs. But the past five years or so have seen a dramatic transformation, as old commercial buildings are bought up by canny developers and converted into small, low-rent apartments and even dormitories.

"This is a story about the fortune to be made at the bottom of the pyramid... Forty-four percent of people living here now use email," said Sharon Lewis, pointing out that developers are already struggling to keep up with the soaring demand for affordable accommodation that isn't an hour's drive outside the city.

The trick now is to keep those rents low, and to convince big businesses that it's safe, and economically wise, to come back.

It's still early days - and be careful where you wander after dark - but the changes are real. I've spent two years exploring the city, without incident, touch wood.

I walked through the financial district recently with Nelson Mandela's lawyer, George Bizos, who said - I think without too much exaggeration - that the area could hold its own with some European capitals.

Incidentally, a few streets away, Mr Bizos has been battling for years to restore the old law office where Mr Mandela worked.

I understand from the JDA that the derelict building has finally been taken over by the City, and renovation work will start any day now.

As for the pleasures, and necessities of walking in a city... Here are a couple of recent articles I've enjoyed - one about altered perspectives and another celebrating a slower pace of life.


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